During his reign as a governor in the Roman empire, Herod the Great turned Caesarea from a simple fishing village into a large, prosperous sea port. He was called “the Great Builder” by some, because he undertook amazing construction projects in this Mediterranean port city. Strategically positioned on the Via Mares (the way of the sea) — the major commerce highway of the ancient world connecting Africa, Europe and Asia; an intercontinental bridge — Caesarea became a booming center of commerce.
Herod built a palace there — where Paul was imprisoned after standing before Felix and Aggripa in Acts 24 and 25. We toured the ruins of this palace, which jutted out into the sea, seeing among other things the in-ground stone swimming pool he’d built in the residence area of the palace. We sat in the theater where Paul likely presented his testimony before Roman officials. We saw the Hippodrome, where horse races and gladiator matches took place. We saw where Herod built a temple using the latest in Roman technology in arch building (this was right after they invented the keystone, which was the secret of the strength of the Roman arch). And we saw the site of the roman bath houses built by Herod. And we saw the site of the great water break and harbor Herod built, using cement for the first time in history.
And of course we saw the ruins of a great aqueduct that stretched 10-15 miles from a fresh water source north of Caesarea down to the city. I’ve always heard that the aqueduct is one of the wonders of the ancient world, but seeing it up-close really confirmed that for me. Amazing!
After Jerusalem was destroyed in the 1st century AD, Caesarea became the capital of Israel. When Constantine “christianized” the roman empire in the 4th century, the Christians put an end to the theater and the games (races, gladiator battles, etc), and built churches in or on top of the amphitheaters. When the Muslims invaded in the 7th century, it was more of a cultural takeover, so (at least in Caesarea) there wasn’t much destruction of the existing buildings / architecture. And the crusades in the 12th and 13th century didn’t really change enough to worry about.
However, when Israel was reborn as a nation in 1948, Caesarea was covered in sand. Most of the ruins we saw today were uncovered and carefully excavated by the Jews after their nation was restored to them.
Another interesting note: the second largest library in the ancient world was in Caesarea. While the museum in Alexandria, Egypt was destroyed, the one in Israel survived and thrived during the Constantine era, helping to support Christianity as it spread throughout the known world. Very interesting!
But the most interesting thing about Caesarea for me was the rest of the story of Peter and Cornelius…
As a Roman centurion, Cornelius was the commander of 100 Roman soldiers (from the Latin, 100 = century). This was a very prestigious position. When Peter got to his home, he found that Cornelius had “called together his relatives and close friends”. According to our guide, this likely meant that he had gathered his family, friends, the 100 men who served under him, and their families. They would almost all have been gentiles.
When Peter entered the room, he immediately realized that these were not people with whom he should be socializing. But when Cornelius shared the vision he had had from God, Peter realized that his vision about unclean foods had really been about the gentiles. God had said, “Do not call unclean what the Lord has called clean.” So, Peter shared the gospel with them, and hundreds (ostensibly) came to a saving faith in Christ. And the movement to take the gospel to the entire world was born.
The most amazing aspect of this story is the global significance of this event. This was the last of 3 events that changed the world forever in terms of the spread of the gospel. First, Philip was sent by God to share the gospel with the Ethiopian Eunuch on the Gaza road in Acts 8. The Eunuch, a descendent of Noah’s first son Dan, believes in Christ and is saved.
In Acts 9, Saul is confronted by Jesus on the road to Damascus. Ananias faithfully preaches the gospel to him, the scales fall from his eyes (both literally and figuratively), and Saul becomes the mighty apostle Paul. Saul was a descendant of Shem, Noah’s second son.
And lastly we have Cornelius, who is a descendant of Noah’s third and last son, Japhath. In Acts 10, he too receives Christ as a result of Peter’s faithfulness. So, in three chapters of Acts we see the gospel spread to every tribe of the whole world. Amazing!
Every gentile Christian can trace his roots to one of these three events.
In addition to learning a lot of history about Israel and this place, as well as connecting it to the Bible, Gary Frazier, the Director of Discovery Ministries, our tour company, spoke to us to welcome us to Israel and orient us about the trip. He talked about how Paul – an impressively scholarly man – could have spoken on anything before Felix and Aggripa, but instead he chose simply to share his testimony, and bear witness to what God had done in his life. Read the story yourself in Acts to see. Gary emphasized how this is true of us as Christians in the 21st century as well. His point was basically that we shouldn’t try to be impressive or smart, but rather should simply share with others the love of Christ – both in our actions and in the words of our testimony, when we point others to what God has done for us. He then shared his story with us, prayed over us, and sent us out into our tour with the admonition to be focused less on buildings, history and architecture, and more on what God is doing in our lives.
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